Full metal Jacket poster (1987). Illustration by Philip Castle.

Watching Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket on Blu-ray recently I was wondering again whether anyone has noted the similarity between the film’s poster design and the cover for the UK edition of one of its source books, Michael Herr’s Dispatches. At the risk of repeating some common piece of Kubrick lore, here goes.

Airbrush artist Philip Castle painted the helmet that’s become the perennial image used to promote the film. Kubrick often reused the services of people he trusted, and had earlier employed Castle as poster artist for A Clockwork Orange. Kubrick also oversaw the design of publicity materials for his later films so we can be reasonably sure this idea was one of his.


Dispatches (1979). Illustration by Steven Singer.

Michael Herr’s collection of reports about the Vietnam war was first published in the US in 1977 with a UK edition following a year later. The cover of the US first edition is unremarkable compared to this typically excellent Picador design from 1979 (no designer is credited). That year saw the release of Apocalypse Now for which Herr wrote the narration. Kubrick was eager to turn Herr’s book into a film but neither of them could find a suitable story to provide a structure for Herr’s reportage until the director decided to weld Dispatches to the first two thirds of Gustav Hasford’s novel The Short-Timers (1979). Full Metal Jacket mixes episodes and speech/dialogue from both books: Hasford’s sniper attack on a jungle trail gets transplanted to Herr’s description of the fighting in Hue City.


The Short-Timers (1987). No illustration credit.

Hasford’s novel was first published in the UK in this shoddy tie-in version with some generic war painting badly cropped into helmet shape in order to match the film poster. Such a good book really deserved better than this hack design. Much as I like Full Metal Jacket, when you read Herr and Hasford you have to admit that the film only captured a fraction of the horror and madness in the books. Herr’s writing is justly celebrated while Hasford’s novel seems to have been forgotten again. Anyone who likes Kubrick’s film ought to search it out, it’s an indelibly memorable and disturbing read. The sniper scene is far more brutal and chilling than its cinematic equivalent, and is delivered by stark prose like this:

The snipers zero in on us. Each shot becomes a word spoken by death. Death is talking to us. Death wants to tell us a funny secret. We may not like death but death likes us. Victor Charlie is hard but he never lies. Guns tell the truth. Guns never say “I’m only kidding.” War is ugly because the truth can be ugly and war is very sincere.

Also worth searching out is Herr’s short memoir, Kubrick, published the year after the director’s death, in which the writer describes his three-year collaboration on Full Metal Jacket‘s screenplay. It’s a generous and insightful piece of writing, worlds away from Frederic Raphael’s condescending and mean-spirited Eyes Wide Open.

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